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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Benjamin Cason Rawlings

Ben Rawlings. Courtesy of Byrd Tribble


                                                                      
[A note to today's post: Virtually everything I know about the life of Ben Rawlings is due to the generosity of my friend, author Byrd Tribble. Her book, whose cover is shown below, is well researched and skillfully written. It is still available from booksellers online and I recommend it to everyone who would like to know more about this remarkable man. Byrd has given me permission to use her work as the basis for what is written below.]








     Ben Rawlings (1845-1908) was the younger brother of Zachary Herndon Rawlings, who married my great great aunt Bettie Row of Greenfield plantation. Like many Southerners, young Ben followed with great interest the progress of the secession movement. He was particularly interested in the events in Charleston, South Carolina, where a crisis regarding the Federal forts there, primarily Sumter, seemed to be leading to armed confrontation. At Christmastime 1860, his sixteenth birthday still two weeks away, Ben resolved to become part of the history unfolding there. Without telling his parents of his intentions, Ben slipped away and--by train and on foot--made his way from Spotsylvania, Virginia to Charleston.
     Once there, Ben wrote to his parents to let them know where he was and, with his father's permission, he enlisted in the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, commanded by Maxcy Gregg. In doing so, the sixteen year old Ben became the first Virginian to join a Confederate unit during the Civil War. This fact and his extreme youth made him quite a celebrity at the time and his name appeared in many approving newspaper accounts.
     Private Ben Rawlings was present at Cummings Point as the first shots of the war were fired toward Fort Sumter. During the bombardment Ben saw fellow Virginian, the rabid secessionist Edmund Ruffin, knocked off his feet by a shell that struck the parapet upon which he was standing.
     Shortly thereafter volunteers from Gregg's regiment were called to go to Virginia, where it was anticipated most of the fighting would take place. Once back in his home state Ben transferred to the Thirtieth Virginia Infantry. Two years later Ben was promoted at age eighteen to Captain of Company D during the fighting at Suffolk. The requisition for clothing shown below is among Ben's official papers that survive in the archives:






     In late November 1863 Ben was captured by Federal troops near Mine Run in Spotsylvania while he was home on furlough. While being marched off to captivity with Ben a fellow prisoner managed to write a note, which he wrapped around a rock and then furtively tossed into the yard of a family friend. It read: "Miss Woolfrey, you will please inform my family that I am a prisoner of war and Capt. Benj. Rawlings also. We are on our way to Washington City this the 28 November 1863."

Courtesy of Byrd Tribble

Ben spent the next eleven months in a series of Federal prisons--the Old Capitol Prison, Point Lookout and Fort Delaware.
     During Ben's imprisonment at Point Lookout he made at least one attempt to escape. In an account published in the January 25, 1911 edition of the Lexington Gazette (more than two years after Ben's death) one of his fellow prisoners told this story: "...the late Capt. B.C. Rawlings of Rockbridge was detailed to go out of prison with other men and get wood. He had his men cover him up with brush and at night he made his escape, getting fifteen miles from prison when he was captured and and taken back. His punishment was wearing a ball and chain."
     On March1, 1864 Ben wrote a letter to his mother from Point Lookout. He asked that she send him "greenbacks...Also 20 lbs. of chewing tobacco." Near the end of the letter he added this dark warning: "You should be careful not to allow yourselves to become in contact with the Yankee army on its next advance. Save what you can. Fall back with the negroes." It is not known whether they needed this extra encouragement from Ben, but shortly after the receipt of this letter Ben's parents, his brother Zachary and his family, and Nancy and Nannie Row packed up what belongings they could and fled to Hadensville in Goochland County. They would spend much of their time here in relative safety until the end of the war.
     Ben's brother published this notice in the Richmond Enquirer on September 2, 1864: "Capt. B.C. Rawlings, Company D, 30th Virginia Regiment was taken prisoner near Chancellorsville the last of November 1863. Last heard from at Point Lookout. Any information concerning him will be thankfully received by his father, or brother. at Hadensville, Goochland County. Z.H. Rawlings. Northern papers please copy."
     Sick and starving, Ben was paroled as a prisoner of war in October 1864. After convalescing at General Hospital No. 4 in Richmond he rejoined his regiment in the trenches at Petersburg. Here he and his men would fight until the Confederate retreat to Appomattox in April 1865. Ben lost his sword during the battle of Five Forks. Not wishing to to take the chance of being sent back to a Federal prison, Ben slipped through the Union lines at Appomattox and headed to Hadensville. His family scarcely recognized him when he arrived. On May 2, 1865 Ben, Zachary and Zachary's brother in law George Row left together and rode into Richmond where they were properly paroled as prisoners of war.
     In October 1866 Ben went west (and had a harrowing confrontation with Apaches on the way there), where he lived first in California and then in Nevada, working in the mines. He returned to Virginia by 1874. Like his brother Zachary, Ben worked as a railroad contractor for the Norfolk and Western line in the Shenandoah Valley. During this time Ben was also a partner in some business venture with my great grandfather, George Row. When this enterprise ran its course Ben took over the business in October 1874, releasing George from further responsibility:





     Meanwhile Ben began to court Florence Gibbs, whose family lived at Raphine in Rockbridge near the home of Zachary Rawlings. Florence's father was James E.A. Gibbs, the successful sewing machine inventor. While George Row was staying at Zachary's house he became acquainted with Florence's family and their relatives. Among those were her father's cousin, the former Annette Willson and her husband George Houston. George Row became smitten by the Houston's older daughter Lizzie and he began to vie with the local young men for her attention. After a year's courtship he married her at New Providence Presbyterian Church in Rockbridge on December 14, 1875.
     Ben married Florence in 1876 and they settled on a farm in Raphine given to them by her father. They called this place Las Vegas. Their two children were born there: James (1879) and Lillian (1881). Lillian married Granville R. Swift who became Commonwealth's Attorney in Fredericksburg after serving in the House of Delegates. While in private practice Granville was the attorney for Lizzie and Horace Row and for a time also handled their investments.
     In June 1899 Lizzie Row's mother and oldest son Houston died within nine days of each other. She received many letters of condolence, including this one from Ben Rawlings. Ben wrote: "It was only a few days ago I was speaking to a mutual friend about you and how you were blessed in such a noble and devoted son and what a comfort he was to you, little knowing at the time he was lying on his death bed."










     For many years Ben was a deacon at Mount Carmel Presbyterian Church in Augusta County. While sitting in his pew there on the morning of October 18, 1908 Ben was stricken with a heart attack and died. He is buried the the church cemetery.

Courtesy of Byrd Tribble

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